Stephen Lemons Column

John McCain Censured by County Republicans While His GOP Senate Rival Supports Militia Nuts

It must've been fate, me first bumping into U.S. Senate candidate Kelli Ward outside the recent meeting of the Maricopa County Republican Committee at a church in Central Phoenix.

I recently took the Duke University-educated former state Senator to task for her playing footsie with far-right fanatics, like in 2014 when she and other Arizona GOP politicians rushed up to Nevada to support so-called "welfare rancher" Cliven Bundy in a standoff with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management over his unwillingness to pay grazing fees for his cattle.

Bloodshed narrowly was averted then, though militia types supporting Bundy allegedly pointed guns at federal agents.

Now it's deja vu all over again in Oregon, as a passel of heavily armed wackos led by Cliven's sons, Ryan and Ammon, and joined by anti-Muslim Phoenix bigot Jon Ritzheimer, have taken over a federal wildlife refuge, defaced property, used government vehicles, and vowed to stay put till the Obama administration turns over federal land to county control.

Ward has a history of humoring crackpots, which has earned her the sobriquet "Chemtrail Kelli" for holding a town hall in Kingman to discuss the harmless white trails of condensation emitted by airplanes that so many of her supporters believe are part of a kooky conspiracy to poison Americans.

When I asked Ward about the Oregon standoff for my previous column, she issued a statement, saying in part, "We don't have the right to use force or threaten violence."

Still, she did not condemn the Bundys' actions in Oregon, and instead supported their "free speech" rights.

Face to face at the MCRC meeting, she didn't even offer her previous admonition against violence when asked if she supported the Oregon occupation.

"I'll always support our First Amendment rights to peacefully assemble and to speak freely," she told me.

Um, does this include occupying federal property, AR-15s a-ready?

"I haven't been watching what they're doing," she claimed of the Bundy militia, adding, "I don't know what they did, exactly. And I don't know if it's legal for them to have guns in Oregon where they are."

So much for following current events.

"If somebody who happens to have a gun is peacefully assembling, then you shouldn't say people with guns are gathered outside a building," she explained. "That's misleading to the public. We have a Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms."

And if it were Muslim extremists pulling the same stunt?

"I have no problem with anyone who is legally able to have a gun in our country and by each state's laws carrying that gun, no matter who they are," she said, bobbing and weaving like the best of them.

Such responses are carefully crafted. If the Bundys end up shooting it out with the feds, well, she did use the word "peacefully," didn't she?

Meanwhile, she does nothing to tick off her base: the right-wing fringe that's supporting her and hates her rival, incumbent U.S. Senator John McCain, with abandon.

Speaking of which, I had to ask her about the resolution before county Republicans that day blasting Arizona's senior senator and declaring that precinct committeemen for Arizona's most populous county should endorse "anybody but McCain" in the GOP primary.

Granted, censuring McCain for Maricopa County tuskers is as perfunctory as saying the Pledge of Allegiance, and McCain's getting spanked is good for Ward, but isn't it also good for Democratic Congresswoman Ann Kirkpatrick, who surely will take on McCain in the general election?

"It's not the party harming McCain," Ward offered. "It's McCain harming himself."

This, because McCain is insufficiently extremist for the majority of GOP PCs in our ruby red county. (My words, not Ward's.)

But doesn't Ward want a Republican to win the general?

"I want a Republican who votes the right way, with the people they represent," she replied.

And if Ward fails to prevail, will she support McCain?

"I'm sure I will," she conceded, then quickly recovered, saying, "But I don't think we're going to have that."

Other PCs present were not as generous. Several told me that they might even vote for Kirkpatrick, which is weird considering that the county party has censured fellow PCs previously for supporting Ds.

Far-right Republican activist and PC Charlene Hanson told me that she disliked both McCain and Kirkpatrick. But when I asked if she would vote for Kirkpatrick, assuming McCain squared off with her in the general, her answer floored me.

"I might," she said.

Not every PC was willing to go there, and some spoke against the measure when it came to a vote, pointing out that by dissing McCain in an election year, they were aiming Glock at foot and firing.

Those speaking in favor of the resolution included the goober godfathers who control the county party from the sidelines, including former MCRC chairmen Rob Haney and A.J. LaFaro and erstwhile AZ GOP Chair Tom Morrissey.

Haney hates McCain because McCain does not share his fervent animus toward Mexicans. Morrissey dislikes McCain because McCain didn't back him for U.S. Marshal for Arizona back in the day. LaFaro? Well, LaFaro, a walking PayDay bar, hates McCain out of sheer factionalism.

That is, his faction sees McCain as a "RiNO," a Republican in Name Only.

The anybody-but-McCain resolution passed, of course, by about 61 percent, 921 to 582.

That's actually an improvement for McCain over the last time the MCRC censured him in 2014, when a similar measure pulled about 76 percent of the vote, passing 1,150 to 351.

A resolution supporting Sheriff Joe Arpaio is nearly as common at these meetings of the faithful as an anti-McCain measure. In 2014, a pro-Joe measure scored 83 percent support, 1,249 to 247.

But this year, the resolution — offered by recalled ex-state Senate President Russell Pearce — garnered 70 percent approval, 1060 to 450. Sure, it's still 70 percent, but that's a significant decline as Arpaio faces re-election. Could it be that even some right-wing Republicans see Joe's days as numbered, given what's gone on in federal court?

By the way, Pearce was on hand and had a jumbo vanity plate of a sign on one wall, featuring his smiling, potato-like mug. The sign simply said "for Arizona." It didn't indicate that he was running for anything.

Naturally, I inquired as to what he might be running for, but Russ remained mum. Currently, he is employed at an $80,000-a-year job working for Republican County Treasurer Charles "Hos" Hoskins, who has signaled that he will not run for re-election this year.

However, Pearce's fellow county employee and political ally Royce Flora has announced his intention to run to replace Hoskins, and it seems unlikely Pearce would challenge Flora.

The MCRC was a marathon, lasting officially from 9 a.m. till well past 7 p.m. Last order of business was the removal of the first and second vice chairs of the MCRC, Aaron Borders and Jeni White, respectively.

You may recall Borders as the guy who wanted to be Donald Trump's man in Arizona until some incendiary Facebook posts of his forced the Trump camp to give him their version of "the Heisman."

Apparently, White and Borders' sin was to raise questions about the county party's bookkeeping, which was enough to earn a special session of the MCRC, held in the waning hours of Saturday's meeting, just to remove the two volunteers from office.

The debate over the issue was ugly, with PCs shouting down speakers, in some cases with profanity. But the LaFaro-Morrissey-Haney axis wanted them gone. In the end, they were ousted by about 63 percent of the vote.

This was also a win for the MCRC's young, charismatic chairman, Tyler Bowyer, whose leadership had been challenged by White, Borders, and their supporters.

Former state party spokesman Shane Wikfors, editor of the conservative Sonoran Alliance blog, was so disgusted by the MCRC fracas that he announced his resignation as a PC after 26 years of holding the post.

"What I saw Saturday from Maricopa County Republicans was nothing but subtraction and division," he wrote on his blog, contending that "rules and procedures were botched in order to kangaroo court a decision."

Wikfors also bemoaned having to watch "fellow Republicans froth at the mouth shouting at each other."

Republican state party committee members may get more of the same January 23, when the Arizona Republican Party meets in Phoenix.

Team LaFaro will be at it again, attempting to pass a statewide anybody-but-McCain resolution and hoping to censure popular state party chair Robert Graham, whom many see as a contender to replace Republican National Committee chair Reince Priebus next year.

(Note: McCain was censured by a voice vote of the state party in 2014, but LaFaro and Company never tire of turning the fork in McCain's backside.)

The Kirkpatrick camp did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

No doubt its members are cheering on LaFaro and his minions, as they act like gremlins on the wings of the Arizona Republican Party jet, hoping to aim the nose of the plane down.

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Stephen is a former staff writer and columnist at Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Stephen Lemons